Age of Unreason
Celebrities, healers and new age gurus transmit the message
that normal human beings cannot do it on their own.
To this day I am astonished when I hear that sensible, biologically
mature adults allow themselves to be treated as if they were incompetent
dimwits by a new army of professional surrogate parents. In days
of old, traditional authority figures, like priests, instructed
us how to behave in public and told us which rules to observe. Today’s
experts are even freer with their advice. They do not simply tell
us what to do and think, but also how to feel. A new army of life
coaches, lifestyle gurus, professional celebrities, parenting coaches,
super-nannies, makeover experts, healers, facilitators, mentors
and guides regularly lecture us about the most intimate details
of our existence. They are not simply interested in monitoring public
behaviour but in colonising our internal life.
Life coaches ‘support’ us with making transitions in our private
life while their colleagues feng shui our mundane existence. And
every aspect of daily life has become a target of a makeover project.
It is sad to see grown-up people needing somebody to show them how
to shop for clothes. It is even more depressing when so many of
us decide that we cannot make important decisions concerning our
personal life without the benefit of a life coach, parenting coach
or a high-tech psychic peddling gemstone therapy. This is not just
deference to authority but the prostration of the adult imagination.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with expertise. We rely on mechanics
to fix our cars and on dentists to extract our teeth. But the posse
of 21st-century life experts is not so much in the business of fixing
practical problems as in transforming us into needy children. Their
enterprise depends on undermining and usurping confidence in our
ability to conduct our affairs. The message they transmit is that
normal human beings cannot do it on their own. That is why they
assume that they possess the moral authority to dictate to us what
to wear, how to love, how to parent, what not to eat and, most important
of all, how to live. They are in the business of imposing a new
form of authority over people’s everyday affairs. At least the message
of self-help gurus in the 1980s and 1990s projected the mildly anarchic
ideal of ‘be yourself’. In form at least the message was promoted
through an anti-authoritarian vocabulary. In contrast, today’s makeover
culture self-consciously commands you not to be yourself. On television
they make fun of the way you dress, offer sarcastic references about
your poor taste in the way you furnish your home and insist that
you follow their superior regime of child-rearing. They know best,
which is why some of them describe themselves, without a trace of
irony, as gurus.
Deference to the authority of the celebrity, makeover guru or healer
is underwritten by the decline in the influence of conventional
forms of authority. That is why the frequently asserted claim that
we live in an age characterised by the ‘death of deference’ bears
little relationship to reality. Yes, it has become fashionable to
treat traditional forms of authority — monarchy, church, parliament
— with derision. Criticism of traditional institutions has become
so prevalent that it bears all the hallmarks of classical conformism.
Scientists, doctors and other professionals have also experienced
an erosion of authority. But the diminishing influence of conventional
authority has been paralleled by the rise of a new ‘alternative’
one. We don’t trust politicians but we have faith in the pronouncements
of celebrities. We are suspicious of medical doctors but we feel
comfortable with healers who mumble on about being ‘holistic’ and
‘natural’. We certainly don’t trust scientists working for the pharmaceutical
industry but we are happy to listen to the disinterested opinion
of a herbalist. And, of course, alternative food and other consumer
products gain our confidence because ...they are alternative.
Confused parents are now expected to bow to the expertise of the
supernanny who has succeeded in taming their naughty children. Disoriented
adults now swear that their detox therapist has freed them from
their negative feelings. Others are reluctant to make their next
big decision without the ‘support’ of their life coach. The whole
nation hails the celebrity saint who has alerted them to the moral
challenge of purifying children’s school dinners. Our saints do
not simply save individuals, but the entire continent of Africa.
It is not just ordinary punters who defer to the new authority
of the life expert. Even those who formally exercise traditional
authority look to their competitors for answers. The personification
of the confused bearer of traditional authority in search of a healer
or lifestyle guru is of course Prince Charles, the future King of
Last year he enthusiastically endorsed the Gerson Therapy that
provides an alternative to chemotherapy, 13 fruit juices a day,
weekly injections of vitamins and coffee enemas. As the royal aficionado
of alternative medicine, Charles’s flirtation with coffee enemas
is not surprising. He was instrumental in setting up the Foundation
for Integrated Health, a clearing house for the advocacy of alternative
therapies. He has also succeeded in promoting the institutionalisation
of alternative medicine. Thanks, in part, to his lobbying, the government
is now funding alternative medicine through the NHS.
Charles is by no means a lone voice from the British establishment
advocating alternative therapies. After the publication of a report
urging the further expansion of these therapies in the NHS in October,
120 GPs publicly came out as associates of the Foundation of Integrated
Health. Sensitive to the widespread appeal of alternative therapy,
the medical establishment is also happy to embrace ‘integrated medicine’.
Even some sensible medics are prepared to live with a bit of mumbo-jumbo
as long as they can get on with the real stuff.
Of course, if distracted celebrities or alienated aristocrats wish
to indulge in a bit of superstition that is their affair. But what
are we to make of a world where our political leaders make obeisance
to the New Age guru? For some time now political leaders on both
sides of the Atlantic have shown a proclivity for embracing the
guidance of mystics. It is well known that former US President Ronald
Reagan relied on an astrologer to draw up horoscopes to guide his
diplomacy. For example, before the 1985 Geneva summit the astrologer
Joan Quigley was asked to study the ‘star charts’ of Gorbachev in
order to anticipate his likely behaviour. Apparently, she also determined
the exact time at which Reagan had to sign the Intermediate-Range
Nuclear Forces treaty in December 1987. The Clinton White House
preferred more psychologically oriented superstition. Bill Clinton
has frequently consulted self-help gurus to help him find his way
and Hillary frequently hooked up with Jean Houston — who describes
herself as a sacred psychologist — and other psychic mentors.
‘New Labour, Old Superstition’ is the slogan that best describes
the lifestyle of the Blairs. Although there is as yet no lifestyle
guru in the Cabinet, the influence of superstition is ubiquitous.
Tony and Cherie Blair’s Mayan rebirthing ritual during a holiday
in Mexico in 2001 represents a statement about contemporary authority.
As they smeared watermelon and papaya over each other in a perfumed
mud bath, possibly a new policy initiative was born. Maybe it was
this experience that encouraged the government to recruit a feng
shui consultant to advise the NHS. When the Prime Minister and his
family employ someone to tell them how to dress, exercise, relax
and eat, what we witness is the emergence of a new form of authority.
Through their behaviour and practices, public figures and the cultural
elite have served to legitimise the status of the life expert. This
development has been amplified through the activities of the media.
It has contributed to the normalisation of makeover and celebrity
culture. That is why, increasingly, the authority of the lifestyle
guru and celebrity assumes importance in public life. Back in January,
Cherie Blair’s former lifestyle guru Carole Caplin took it upon
herself to urge the public not to vote for Labour unless it withdrew
proposals to ban vitamin and food supplements. A few months later,
Jamie Oliver succeeded in transforming the traditionally disgraceful
school dinner into a major election issue. This intervention was
followed by the spectacle of the Gleneagles summit during which
the leaders of the world were told off for being naughty as they
sat at the feet of former pop brat Sir Bob Geldof.
While it is unlikely that lifestyle and celebrity gurus will make
poverty history, they have proved effective in marginalising critical
thinking, rationality and moral literacy. When in the middle of
a general election campaign the nation forgets that there is a war
going on or that public services are in a state of disarray, and
engages instead in a conversation with a celebrity chef, then something
has clearly gone wrong.
It is important to understand that it is not the intellectual or
moral power of the alternative but the erosion of old authority
that accounts for the ascendancy of the new deference. We are not
talking about the discovery of new complex ideas or particularly
interesting moral insights. Celebrity and lifestyle gurus often
embrace desperately simple notions that used to be dismissed as
hocus-pocus by nine-year-old children. Kabbalah centres promoting
the kind of mediaeval Jewish mysticism that sensible Jews rejected
even in the dark Middle Ages now attract celebrities like Madonna
and her husband Guy Ritchie. Along with Madonna, Britney, Demi and
Paris can be seen wearing the red thread bracelet that protects
them from evil influences. As every earnest Kabbalah maven knows,
this charming fashion accessory needs to be worn on the left wrist
— the receiving side of the body and soul. The red thread seals
in the protective energy while repelling all the negative vibes.
A red thread may not be in the same class as the magic pendant worn
by the first lady in Downing Street, but it is a cheap and cheerful
way of warding off evil spirits.
At least the Kabbalah can be made to sound interesting through
the act of translating it into modern English. But more contemporary
efforts indicate that lifestyle gurus have perfected the art of
the cliché. ‘The only limit to your impact is your imagination and
commitment’ is the brilliant insight offered by Tony Robbins, author
of Life Mastery, Date with Destiny, Unleash the Power Within and
other similar books. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, dubbed the ‘guru of the
glitterati’, has made a fortune with his ‘be happy’ recipe for life.
One of the virtues of superstition is that just about anyone can
claim expertise in its transmission. Certainly quality control is
not a huge issue in the field of modern mysticism. You want to become
a life coach? No problem. Click on the Life Coaching website and
peruse Curly Martin’s The Life Coaching Handbook, learn the rhetoric
and look for work. And if you are truly entrepreneurial and aspire
to be a guru’s guru you can even offer your own customised training
courses for wannabe life coaches and makeover trainers.
Once upon a time gurus were said to possess extraordinary insights
and powerful personalities. These days you do not need to have a
surfeit of charisma to set up shop as a guru. Not every lifestyle
guru possesses the charismatic pull of the entrepreneurial Deepak
Chopra, who reportedly brings home $20 million a year, or Ravi Shankar.
This is the age of the template guru. All you need is a handful
of diplomas and an idiot’s guide to therapeutic rhetoric. Take Gina
Akers, featured as an authentic lifestyle guru on the website of
cityspeakers international. A former hairdressing assistant, she
has for ‘13 years worked her way up the beauty industry’. According
to her promotion material she is now a beauty therapist, holistic
therapist, make-up artist, aromatherapist, nail technician, hair
extension technician, airbrush beauty specialist, body artist, nail
artist and further education lecturer. Aside from holding the ‘equivalent
of five degrees and ten A levels’, she is Swindon FM’s ‘Resident
Beauty, Image and Lifestyle Guru’. To gain access to her insights
you will have to pay a speakers’ fee of ‘between £0–£2,000’ — which
presumably means that it is negotiable. You will probably have to
fork out a lot more if you want to benefit from the teaching of
the more corporate-oriented Lynne Franks. Her website confides that
she is ‘described by the world’s media as a lifestyle guru and visionary’.
As proof of her power of insight into the human condition we are
offered the following piece of wisdom from Franks: ‘I believe the
future is all about the power of local and global grassroots communities
with women as messenger.’ That is as deep as you can get with a
The cultural valuation of superstition over reason and the revival
of ancient forms of mysticism testify to a profound crisis of meaning
in contemporary society. We are no longer talking about isolated
and marginal practices. The ‘alternative’ has gone mainstream and
exercises formidable influence over our lives. Superstitious prejudice
about the unique psychic power of holistic healers is systematically
transmitted through the medium of popular culture. Ideas that were
formerly associated with the esoteric — holistic, organic, psychic
healing, cleansing, detoxing, rebirthing — now trip off our tongues.
The internalisation of this vocabulary is encouraged by a culture
that continually presents human beings as vulnerable and powerless
people who can not be expected to cope with life’s challenges. We
don’t just need healers to draw out the toxins from our body. We
need to defer to lifestyle gurus and relationship experts who can
protect us from ourselves.
So how do we account for the ascendancy of the authority of the
life expert and the mystical guru? Some argue that the rise of this
authority is a response to the decline of religion and the rise
of secularism. It is claimed that without clearly formulated moral
signposts people are likely to be attracted to esoteric fads and
therapies. However, it is important to remember that secularism
and science have been around for a long time. Throughout the 19th
and 20th centuries society experienced phases of moral confusion.
Nevertheless, people often gained a sense of direction from the
guidance they received through secular and scientific authority.
So it is not just the decline of religion but also of conventional
forms of modern authority that distinguishes our times. In previous
eras a loss of faith in religion was sometimes compensated for by
the plausibility of science, a political ideology or the capacity
of a public authority to act in the interests of all.
Today all forms of authority have been called into question. The
powerful mood of cynicism towards authority is not simply directed
at a particular group of politicians, scientists or public figures.
The sentiment signalled by this mood of suspicion is the stigmatisation
of all types of formal authority. In such circumstances authority
cannot gain public legitimacy in a coherent and institutionalised
form. Individuals who are charged with exercising authority are
confused and defensive about their role. Instead of acting authoritatively
they often go through the motions; they play a role. What we are
left with is the authority of anti-authority or more specifically
a species of unacknowledged authority that does not have to justify
itself. Bono, Sir Bob or Jamie do not have to worry about re-election.
Nor do we hold gurus and life coaches to account. When we become
disappointed in their performance we simply look for a new therapy
or a more convincing healer. These days authority comes in tiny
bitesize packages and has a very short shelf life.
The new culture of deference does not assign us a fixed place in
a rigid hierarchy. It is far too democratic for that. It merely
insists that we defer to those who know best. It also exhorts us
to understand that we were not born to do things for ourselves and
that individual self-determination is an impossible myth. Through
its valuation of the unproven power of the guru it calls into question
the central importance of the exercise of reason and rationality.
Instead, authority based on personality and psychic intuition is
endowed with legitimacy. Of course, in the 21st century, high-tech
superstition is no match for high-tech science but it can do a lot
to undermine confidence in our humanity.
A civilised and enlightened society requires institutions of legitimate
authority, and public respect for them. That is why the attitude
of the anti-authoritarian seldom conveys the spirit of critical
thought. It is not criticism but uncritical criticism that motivates
the current temper of cultural cynicism. The authority cultivated
through human experience allows people to gain a measure of control
over their destiny. Without such institutions to guide us people
have no choice but to defer to Fate and its earthly representatives
in the makeover industry.
published in The Spectator, 18 November 2005